Prior to the 2000 presidential election, before "hanging chads" and "butterfly ballots" invaded the country's popular vernacular, most U.S. citizens believed in the security of the national election process: one person, one vote. Democracy seemed simple and safe.
But in the wake of that critical night six years ago-and subsequent disputes at the gubernatorial and presidential levels in 2004-Republicans and Democrats geared up for a bitterly contested midterm election Nov. 7. Both parties positioned thousands of lawyers at critical polling locations and call centers throughout the country. The Justice Department prepared for the worst, too, deploying an unprecedented 850 officials to monitor the process. Many election workers predicted that new electronic touch-screen machines would foster a whole new wave of legal complaints and contested outcomes that might bog down the country with undetermined races for weeks or months after Election Day.
Yet, as the dust settled in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, surprisingly few threats of litigation emerged. Tight Senate races in Montana and Virginia remained undecided as numbers from late-reporting precincts and absentee ballots trickled in, but the near absence of voting irregularities in those states rendered potential recounts or court challenges unlikely. Republican incumbents Conrad Burns and George Allen conceded defeat soon after.
All 36 gubernatorial races were likewise decided within days of the election. Several razor-close congressional races may still yield drawn-out battles to determine winners, but an undisputed Democratic takeover of the House has dropped such fights out of the national spotlight.
That Democrats seized control of the legislature without rousing significant GOP allegations of fraud has silenced far-left conspiracy theories of GOP-orchestrated corporate manipulation of elections. Such tacit admissions of fairness from both sides of the aisle may represent a turning point away from the recent proclivity to file lawsuits. Or maybe equally rabid and frequent election litigation now simply takes place before any votes are cast.
Judges throughout the country, including those from the nation's highest court, issued several critical decisions heading into November-some with the potential to alter outcomes in tight races. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Oct. 20 that Arizona could enforce a voter-passed proposition requiring voters to show identification at the polls. The high court explained, "Voter fraud drives honest citizens out of the democratic process and breeds distrust of our government. Voters who fear their legitimate votes will be outweighed by fraudulent ones will feel disenfranchised."
Proponents of the new voter-ID requirements hailed the decision as a victory for more secure elections-one that might set precedent for numerous other states using or considering similar measures. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandates that all states require identification for first-time voters who registered by mail without verifying their identity. Two dozen states go beyond HAVA in asking for identification from all voters. Seven states require a photo ID.
Much debate exists over the impact of such stricter voting policies. Many conservatives believe they combat an ever-prevalent threat of fraud-one possible explanation for this year's decrease in court challenges. But such leftist organizations as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Brennan Center for Justice argue that ID laws disproportionately burden minorities and the poor.
With support from ACORN and a variety of other local and national agencies, Brennan Center lawyers launched an assault on voter-ID laws and registration restrictions in the months leading up to the midterms. The New York--based law firm managed to procure preliminary injunctions against fraud protection measures in Ohio, Florida, and Washington state.
Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the center's Democracy Program, believes such victories ensured voting access for many Americans who might otherwise have stayed home Nov. 7. "Voting shouldn't be an obstacle course," she said. "There have been a lot of new laws across the country in the last year that make it harder for people to vote. People shouldn't face unreasonable administrative barriers."
Among the provisions the Brennan Center deems unreasonable are requirements that newly registered voters be matched against existing driver's license or Social Security rolls to confirm their identity and update any outdated information. An ongoing lawsuit in Washington state succeeded in suppressing such a measure for this election cycle and will likely make the change permanent when litigation resumes in 2007.
The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank in the state, opposes that action and considers it part of a wide-reaching scheme to maintain the opportunities for fraud rampant in the past few elections. Jonathan Bechtle, director of the foundation's Citizenship and Governance Center, said the new voter-registration law has helped the state clean off about 70,000 improper names from the voter rolls in the last year. "Most of those are duplicate registrations," he said. "We have a major problem with that, and this law went directly to it."
But Weiser counters that matching the names on new registrations to those in a computer database often fails to account for spelling or punctuation variations, unfairly discriminating against minority groups. "There are like 30 different spellings of Mohammad," she said.
The Brennan Center's expected victory in Washington could trigger a ripple effect in other states and might signal a shift in legal momentum toward undoing new measures motivated largely by the 2000 presidential debacle. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona voter-ID case left open the possibility of revisiting the issue should the election provide some empirical data of voter disenfranchisement.
ACORN's attempts to repeal voter-ID laws and new registration requirements have faced considerable scrutiny given the organization's past reputation for suspect practices. The Ohio-based group with local chapters across the country was accused of rampant voter-registration fraud during the run-up to the 2004 elections. ACORN employees often dumped thousands of registration forms on the desk of county officials shortly before the election, leaving little time to scrutinize each new voter.
Reports of fraud surfaced from Florida to Ohio to Colorado, among other states. ACORN workers registered such voters as "Mary Poppins," "Dick Tracy," and "Jive Turkey." Agency officials denied organizational involvement, claiming that all irregularities resulted from rogue employees. Jim Fleischmann, director of ACORN's western region, dismissed the seriousness of the allegations, telling reporters, "Just because you register someone 35 times doesn't mean they get to vote 35 times."
Less than a week before this year's midterms, ACORN again faced accusations of foul play when four workers in Kansas City were indicted by a federal grand jury for submitting fraudulent voter-registration forms. In a statement released soon after, the Justice Department noted its ongoing national investigation into such practices.
Teresa James, an attorney for ACORN's legal arm, Project Vote, told WORLD the agency has "instituted a quality-control program to help weed out bad apples very quickly." But the organization continues to oppose government-backed screening, fighting against a law in Ohio that enforces stricter deadlines and quality-control measures on third-party voter-registration groups. With the help of the Brennan Center, ACORN convinced a federal court in Cleveland to block the law in September.
ACORN president Maude Hurd defends such action as part of the group's effort to ensure that all citizens can vote. In her response to a scathing editorial in The Wall Street Journal this month, Hurd denied any "secret partisan motivations." But with considerable funding from labor unions and liberal activist George Soros, and with the exposure of an internal campaign document calling for "the construction of a permanent progressive political infrastructure," ACORN's partisan motivations are no secret.